Science Communication: Migration and nutrition of the left-behind individuals: Evidence from Ghana

The aim of this post is to simplify the findings of this paper in plain terms.


When it comes to migration, media coverage often hones in on the migrants themselves, giving little attention to the families and individuals left behind. However, migration has an impact on those left behind.

My research investigates the effects of migration on the nutrition of the left behind - individuals who remain in a household after one or more family members have migrated. To do so, I use survey data from Ghana spanning 2013/2014 to 2017/2018, where the vast majority of migrations, are within the country. The key question I address is whether migration has a positive or negative influence on the nutritional status of those left behind. Surprisingly, I found that when someone leaves the household to look for a job elsewhere, it negatively impacts the nutrition of those who stay. Adults experience a slight weight loss, while children face a more significant decline in their nutritional health, as indicated by their BMI-for-age z-score, an indicator that assesses their nutritional status.

In this study, I also examine the impact of financial transfers to the household of origin. It is common for migrants to send money back home. One might expect that such transfers would improve the nutrition of the left-behind members by enhancing the quality and quantity of their food. However, my findings reveal a more complex picture. When considering the combined effect of having a migrant family member and receiving transfers, there isn’t a clear positive impact on nutrition. However, focusing only on the reception of transfers, likely from migrants who left long ago, shows a positive effect on children’s nutritional status. This suggests that the long-term effects of migration, after the migrant settles and sends money home, might be beneficial, but only after some time.

However, the dominant theme in my findings is what is termed the “disruptive effect” of migration. My research primarily captures the short-term impact of migration, particularly during its early stages, which tends to negatively affect the nutritional status of those left behind, especially children. This can be linked to the financial strain on the household due to migration costs and the potential loss of income from the migrant, who is often a significant source of income. Thus, their departure likely results in an immediate income loss for the family, which might translate into worse nutrition.

In summary, my results indicate that in the short term, an individual’s migration has a negative impact on the nutrition of the left behind, mainly due to the associated loss of income. While this loss of income affects adults' weights only marginally, it has much more important consequences on children’s nutritional status. Unfortunately, even though one might think that the negative effects are only short-term and that I find positive effects in the long term, these early impacts can have long-lasting consequences for children’s nutritional well-being and growth, as they are less resilient than adults.

Finally, while the case study is Ghana, similar conclusions could apply to other Sub-Saharan African countries. Given that the majority of migration in Ghana is internal, this scenario could mirror a widespread pattern in the region, shedding light on the broader migration dynamics of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Adrien Gosselin-Pali
Adrien Gosselin-Pali
PhD candidate in Development Economics

PhD candidate in Development Economics at University Clermont Auvergne, CERDI, CNRS, IRD, France.